A friend asked me to read and give my reaction to this debate reaction piece by Tim Alberta in Politico. Of late I haven’t been on the same page on many things Alberta has written. There are various assumptions and claims in this one I don’t agree with. But on the big point I think Alberta really nails a key element of what happened Tuesday night. I mentioned yesterday that there’s a certain roguish fun and entertainment Trump can bring which we shortchange ourselves not to understand and credit no matter how much we might loathe him or despise what he represents.
This was one of Trump’s campaign superpowers in 2016. Whatever else you could say it was really, really clear that Trump was enjoying himself. And why wouldn’t he be? He was breaking the rules and getting away with it. On his maiden political campaign he was felling the men who were supposed to be the futures of the Republican Party one after another. He was being himself and it was working. He would provoke, crack a joke, offend and while his competitors were prepping tut-tutting press releases he was on Fox or on Twitter moving on to his next stunt.
And he was getting adulation. Not adulation, a lot of adulation, the heroin of every narcissist and profoundly insecure person. Trump was enjoying himself and he oozed confidence — two magic elixirs of politics. As he won and won again he became more confident and his confidence became more credible. It got more alluring to supporters and more frightening to opponents.
Donald Trump was not having fun Tuesday night and he did not look confident at all. Indeed, I think it’s pretty clear Donald Trump hasn’t had many fun days since he became President. He tells us this himself. Grievance and unfairness are his whole story. Now he’s losing and he knows it. It’s not a good look. It never is but when your ideology and premise is winning then losing wears very badly.
In our latest podcast episode Kate Riga and I compared Tuesday with the 2016 debates. It’s easy to forget just how crazy they were. They each had a number of over the top moments. Tuesday was nonstop over the top.
But the most salient difference was qualitative not quantitive. Trump was sullen, angry and panicked – kryptonite for politicians, especially for Donald Trump.
The centerpiece of Alberta’s column is the second presidential debate in 2016. Days before Trump had been hit with the Access Hollywood tape. Lots of Republicans were renouncing him. Reince Priebus, then head of the RNC, told him to drop out. It seemed obvious Trump would lose and perhaps lose by an historic margin. Would he even show up at the debate? He did show up at the debate and acted unscathed and unscared. This is apparently a core part of the Trump World mythology. That night won him the presidency. He showed he was strong, unafraid and unbendable. Who knows whether that is true, whether it was such a key moment. But that’s what they believe and Alberta does too. To Trump debates are pressure tests. He showed that he didn’t break or wilt under the most withering pressure. People saw that and wanted back onboard.
What I saw then and recall now in retrospect is slightly different. As Trump might say, what did he have to lose?
Trump had managed the unimaginable: secured the major party nomination and wasn’t so far from the presidency itself. Sure he wanted to win. Winning is his ideology. But if he lost … well, no one thought he could win in the first place. As he said again and again, he could just go back to being Donald Trump.
This may not all check out but pretty close. What did he have to lose? Double down again, up the ante. He was having fun. Win he wins, and lose he would still mostly win.
The Trump we saw on Tuesday didn’t look like he was having fun at all. As Adam Serwer puts it, in Trumpism the cruelty is the point. But the fun is also the point. The fun of winning, the fun of breaking the rules and getting away with it and having a good time doing it. It’s not sadism if you’re not enjoying it.
Trump didn’t look like he was having fun at all Tuesday night. And what does he have to lose? A lot. Getting rejected for another term — after people have seen four years — is a far greater ego blow than losing the first time. And Trump is holding off numerous lawsuits and criminal investigations with the semi immunity of the presidency.
What does he have to lose? Quite a lot. He knows it better than anyone.